Closing the tech gap
By Jacob StollerConstruction Software
A new generation of emerging technology companies are proposing innovative solutions to some of construction’s toughest problems. The hard part is connecting concepts with reality.
Until fairly recently, construction wasn’t much of a draw for software companies. Today, large contractors are inundated with requests from emerging firms to pilot their construction-specific solutions. The trend is creating a plethora of apps that bring cutting edge technology from the head office out into the field.
“We’re adopting tools that help us go from the traditional desktop environment to a new generation of mobile apps that give end users in the field access to that technology,” says Hammad Chaudhry, EllisDon’s national director of project delivery services.
EllisDon uses a standardized approach for experimenting with new technology. “We’ve created a new department called Digital Project Delivery,” says Chaudhry, “and that’s looking at all kinds of project innovation on the Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) side of things — software that’s domain-specific to construction, and that might solve pain points that we’re already hearing about from our site teams or superintendents or project managers.”
At Turner Construction, the company has a group headed by vice-president and chief innovation officer James Barrett that interviews hundreds of start-ups in search of new technology that could lead to significant measurable improvements in the business. The group applies a structured “problem finding” workshop approach to a range of activities, including eliciting input from field staff and people closest to the work, consulting with vendors, and evaluating products based on relevant business criteria in real-life work environments.
“I’m convinced that innovation can be predictable, and that you can bring more certainty to the process and increase the probability of success,” says Barrett. “Our goal is to systemize innovation so that you’re more likely to make a positive lasting impact on our people and our industry.”
Progress tracking is one of the top pain points. “Because of the number of people and companies involved in a major project, it takes an enormous amount of time and energy to get an accurate reflection of progress at any stage,” says Chaudhry. “So, progress tracking has been coming up a lot.”
“We’re looking at anything that can help us measure progress, quantify it, and then tie that to labour and materials,” says Barrett. “There are also some interesting solutions around optimizing schedules and monitoring progress of the work, and we’re working with a couple of start-ups on that. Better understanding and improving productivity is of particular interest to us, because that is at the heart of who we are as builders.”
If there’s a killer app for progress tracking, it’s the powerful combination of cameras (or laser scanners) and artificial intelligence (AI). AI analyzes and contextualizes the masses of data that the sensing devices collect, and then inputs the data to software applications such as a VDC model or a scheduling program.
Firms like Cupix and StructionSite support site data collection using a 360-degree camera or other scanning device.
“We now have 360-degree cameras which you can attach to your hard hat,” says Chaudhry. “You walk the site with it every day and automatically capture the status of that project throughout history. That means you can go back in time and see what was behind the drywall without actually ripping out the drywall.”
Of course, even the walking portion can be automated. Turner is experimenting with using Spot, a robotic dog from Boston Dynamics, to carry cameras and laser scanners. “We’re interested in Spot and other robotic solutions that can free up human beings to do fulfilling and meaningful work,” says Barrett.
Another data collection approach is provided by start-up vendor Versatile. The solution, CraneView, uses cameras that are mounted on crane hooks that work in harmony with hardware sensing devices and AI software to provide real-time information on crane productivity.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
While tech solutions tend to look great on websites, their success depends on busy people changing how they do their jobs, which is not always easy.
“A key part of fostering innovation is supporting a digital culture,” says Chaudhry. “I don’t think we have people who are against technology anymore, but if you add something to their to-do list without providing anything back to them, it’s not going to be successful.”
The key is making sure that people piloting new products are able to go the distance and give the product a fair evaluation. “We want to provide that complementary support so that it’s not a burden on their shoulders,” says Chaudhry.
“Probably the biggest part of my job is organizational change management. It’s great that we can have the coolest software in the world, but if nobody knows about it and it doesn’t get into the hands of the people who need it, then it’s not innovation,” says Barrett. “Our job is to make change and make a difference.”
Jacob Stoller is principal of StollerStrategies. Send comments to email@example.com.